SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County isn’t “in the education business,” as Mayor Jenny Wilson put it, but she saw a need the county could fill.
As a mom, Wilson said she’s feeling the same fear and uncertainty other parents are facing as they prepare for school to begin once again amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is no doubt we’ve never faced anything like this, and as a mom of a high schooler ... I can tell you, the anxiety is there,” she said.
So as school districts prepare for reopening and grapple with uncertainty, Wilson said she’s been in talks with district superintendents to identify any needs that haven’t been met. To fill those needs — whether it be funding for more student laptops for at-home learning or additional staffing to assist teachers — she decided to set aside $10 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding to be funneled through the county to school districts.
“I can’t imagine a child who was not able to participate in school because they don’t have access to technology,” Wilson said. “That was a big concern to me. The county’s not in the education business ... but we do recognize the impact on the community as a whole if kids fall behind.”
Of the roughly $203 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding Salt Lake County has received in aid for the COVID-19 pandemic, about $10 million is going to five school districts located in areas that have been hardest hit by the virus, according to county officials.
That includes $3.8 million to Granite School District, $1.6 million to Jordan School District, $1.4 million to Canyons School District, $2.7 million to Salt Lake City School District and about $444,000 to Murray School District.
The breakdown of the funding to school districts was based on student population and what schools were located in higher-need areas. Data suggests areas where Title 1 schools are located have been hardest hit by the virus, and therefore an infusion of additional resources in those areas is warranted, according to county officials.
“We looked at both the need per school, but also recognized there is a disproportionate concern with technology in areas that are also areas with a high rate of COVID-19,” Wilson said.
The aim is to close any digital equity “gaps” within the county, the mayor said.
“These are unique times, and we’ve been tasked by the federal government to spend (aid dollars) appropriately,” Wilson said. “I think one of the highest needs in the community is educating our kids and making sure we don’t have a gap.”
The school districts can only spend the money specifically on COVID-19 needs, including personal protective equipment, overtime for teachers, recording technology for at-home students, laptops or other distance-learning equipment.
The school districts have been asked to pay back the grant to Salt Lake County only if they are given other grants to cover those costs.
Ben Horsley, spokesman for the Granite School District, said the county’s disbursement of federal dollars has come as a bit of a relief amid a time of trepidation, and will allow school districts some extra “flexibility” for “issues that are invariably going to crop up” as schools reopen.
“We’ve never been through a pandemic before,” Horsley said. “So while we have spent thousands of hours creating plans, when the rubber hits the road there’s going to need to be some modifications.”
So whether that’s additional equipment for distance learning or staffing assistance for teachers, Horsley said Granite School District is relieved to have more flexibility in its budget.
“While we have been able to provide supplies with our own CARES Act money ... there is just so much unknown about what is going to happen that we do need some additional funding to just provide that backup support if and when those things occur,” he said.
As schools reopen, Horsley said, the school district will determine how it will use that funding on an as-needed basis.
“We’re so appreciative,” he said. “I don’t think that can be understated.”